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Costumes and courtiers: garments and fashion ideas in late medieval Western Europe

 
 

Introduction

General trends, elements of costumes, cuts, colours and materials


 
 
 Male garments  Female garments
 Undergarments  Headdresses and hairstyle
 Upper garments
 Shoes and tights
 Belts
 Hats and hoods

For the medieval person, clothing and dress always had a special meaning. The symbolic aspects of a given garment, and not simply the utility functions such as protection, played a significant role in medieval society. Costumes composed a part of courtly life as well, their special meaning having been defined and refined by members of the aristocracy for their own use. The great changes in costumes of the fourteenth century, which can best be characterized by the spread of short upper garments among men, and the general trend towards tight-fitting dresses both in male and female clothing, can be traced in written, pictorial, and archeological sources.

This part of costume studies was—unfortunately—neglected for a long time. The first medievalists who dealt with this field, obtained great merits with the recording of costume data visible on standing monuments, ruins, museums, etc. Their main idea was that forms of costumes corresponded with architectural styles, and, as those, depended on morals. Thus, the late medieval costume styles were interpreted as "complicated and bizarre", and a close relationship was supposed between the "vertical and tight-fitting" costumes of the period and the flèches of the cathedrals, compared with, for instance, " Romanesque hieratism" and "Byzantine ornamental" style.

In the second part of this century these collections were used as main sources for the second generation of costume researchers. Anthropology discovered the historical costumes only from the late 1960's, first trying to find a place for the costume research in great scale history, dealing with such questions as materials, places of origins, trade, and then, continuing in a new way, with functional and structural analysis. Studies were made on the ambivalent nature of costume, discussing the ability of costume to reveal both social and individual sides of a person. Structural anthropological analyses revealed important connections between the practical functions of dresses and their symbolic meanings, using as examples the folk costumes of Moravian Slovakia. Anthropology could offer new aspects of answers, besides the mere analysis of pictorial sources and literary documents, from which some fragmentary questions will be discussed in the followings, with the intent to give a general picture about the most important issues in recent costume research studies.

Signing one's wealth and rank: this can be done easily with the help of precious garments even today. Clothing as a public revelation and display played an important part in a medieval person's life, together with the appearance of identity and personality in the 14th and 15th centuries.

One of the main functions of a given garment was to distinguish social rank as precisely as possible, although this could easily be confused by fashion. To be fashionable always meant to be different from the others.Changing and pulsing in cycles, fashion meant for its follower, that he or she, besides being among those who were fashionable, could be clearly distinguished from those who were not. Fashion borrows, therefore, some very characteristic signs of a certain, distinguished group (like the aristocracy's clothing habits in the Late Middle Ages were endangered by bourgeoisie), in order to make somebody similar to the imitated. At the same time, the sign, no longer being in its original context, loses its significance, and the original, imitated social group immediately looks for another different distinctive sign—thus changing, so to say, the fashion itself, and becoming a "trend-setter." Hence, fashion itself confuses the systems of distinction originally developed by a given society, by even evading the ideologies of it. Thus the moralists and preachers of the Middle Ages warned their flock continously against the sin of vanity expressed by the following of fashion. With the fear of abandoning the old virtues came the fear of confusion between social groups and the order of God.

This important ideology can be detected in the Late Middle Ages. It was emphasized and attempted to keep by all means through the sumptuary laws of the 14th and 15th centuries. The order of the world was derived from God above, therefore all attempts to change it, including the copying and wearing of characteristic garments of a certain social strata, revealed sinful attitudes, and so had to be be punished. This happened when aristocracy and nobility tried to stabilize their positions in society by rigid regulations of colors, cuts, and materials - and this is the point when one can find traces of the importance of clothes in late medieval society. These regulations—whether they were traditional ones, or modern institutional regulations— appeared mostly in towns, in great number after the Great Plague in the middle of the century. These sumptuary laws testified the weakening of the traditional costume system, while those of the earlier period were, in fact, luxury legislations, heavily influenced by Church ideas. The 1363 sumptuary law in England, for instance, restricted the amount of money spent on clothes by "grooms, servants and employees of urban craftsmen", and prohibited the wearing of silk or other precious textiles for them.

The legislated social group, therefore, was the group of burghers, becoming more and more important during this period. They obtained their wealth mainly from the textile industry, heavily industrialized in the same period and they began to "import" among the elements of their garments some characteristically "noble" material (like furs, goldcloth, etc.), and cut. In the sumptuary laws of this age the most frequent sentences are those which state that although vast amounts of money were spent by upper social ranked persons for textiles "there cannot be any distinction made between burgher and noble, princes, counts, lords, servants, burghers and their wives according their clothes." An English poem, dated from the middle of the fourteenth century, mentions the same problem, asking for the intervention of the Parliament itself.

Here the importance of fashion again comes into question. By the spread of fashionable dress elements, certain pieces appeared in the lower strata of the society as well. Although earlier research considered the peasant garments to be merely and purely functional, current analyses showed the use of fashionable short doublets and tights among peasantry, together with the demand of dying the textiles with, for example, blues and greens. The amount of money spent on clothes around the middle of the fourteenth century by certain peasant households, was fairly close to that of a middle-class noble's.

Although it is mentioned earlier, in the 12th century, the term "fashion of the young" became generally known in the 14th century, and this type of clothing, connected strongly with the young noblemen of royal courts, could be a way for showing a higher level of representation and prestige for its wearer. In France during the reign of Philippe Valois the "gens de robe courte", the courtly nobility wearing short garments was distinguished from the long cotte and surcotte of the royal officers worn even by the king himself. In 1350 the long garments were mentioned as the garments of the old, the commonfolk, the children and the students. It seems that the above mentioned two garments in the latter part of the fourteenth and especially in the fifteenth century became distinguishable dress elements among university doctors, jurists, and royal personnages.

Speaking about different aspects of costume studies, the question of feminity and masculinity, as manifested in dress, also can be mentioned. Concerning this issue one can find that the early textile industry, the basis of dress-making, was heavily based upon women's production in the household field of Western Europe. From the thirteenth century women appeared in guild regulations as well—not merely as family members, who are taught by the family leader to the basic elements of the craft for the case of need, but sometimes special female guilds were formed, as it is seen in the thirteenth-century Livre des Métiers, describing and listing the guilds in Paris. Among the various occupations listed some were especially connected with fashionable dress elements, such as the guild of the makers of aumonières, the decorated purses worn on the belts; or the chapeau d'orfroi, a kind of decorated headdress made of gold thread and various precious stones. Soon these guilds fell under the dominance of male praepositi, and female textile production was restricted only to the first stages of preparation (spinning, cleaning materials), and the place of women in industry was occupied by men. The situation of female workers in cloth industry has earlier literary traces, notably in the romance of Chrétien de Troyes, Ywain, ou Le Chevalier du Lion. The maidens, held captive in the Castle of the Dire Adventure, gave a sad explanation concerning their fate forcing them to work for minimum wages by embroidering and sewing luxurious robes.

In an other work of Chrétien, however, an other side of the connection between women and clothes can be observed, notably, the caretaking and management of household wardrobe. In Erec and Enide, it is Queen Guenever, who, according to courtly manners, gives a new dress of her own to the bride of the hero. Later in the romance the new wife, Enide presents a new mantle to her husband upon their arrival to the lands of Erec.

The display of power with textiles and physical beauty leads towards the discussion of male and female beauty ideals of the Late Middle Ages. To make relevant the sexual differences can be an important feature of costumes. This differentiation was especially important from the point of view of the Church, and this strict distinction appears in the writings of the Church Fathers, with often cited biblical passages. In vernacular literature the ideal male and female figures appeared in the twelfth century, resulting in such forceful pictures as, for instance, the description of Enide in Chrétien's aforementioned romance, or the appearence of Cleopatra, mistress of Julius Caesar, as a shining blonde beauty, in a thirteenth-century romance from the Matière de Rome. At the same time while heroines appeared in outshining garments, and the naked representation of a lady was almost unacceptable for courtly writers, the hero was often described as a naked "wild man", out of the society, living in the wild, in a kind of madness, often caused by those finely dressed ladies. Lancelot, for instance, was driven mad when accused by Queen Guenever, and Ywain, like his companion-at-arms, lives in the woods for years, naked, knowing nothing about himself, till he is found and dressed in a proper manner by a lady. (It is worth to note that Lancelot in the same manner recognizes his true identity in the later compilation of Thomas Malory, when a noble dress is given to him.)

There were dangers in fashionable clothing, however. Besides to be accused with the sin of vanity, a fashionably-dressed lady easily could be identified with prostitutes. The precious jewels, fur cloaks and other elaborate decorations of a prostitute's dress, as results of continous transgression of sumptuary laws, were precisely the prerogatives of noble ladies. The sign that once belonged to the aristocracy, was endangered to loose its distinctive meaning for one group, and, therefore sometimes became dangerous to wear. In Florence, for instance, there were women who could get exemption from under the strict sumptuary legislations by paying nice sums to the hands of the city council. Although the records preserved only the names of those ladies who were noble, there might have also been prostitutes wealthy enough to use this opportunity, even for the price of being marked with a special seal of Florence on the sleeve of the dress.

The meaning of colours also played an important part in the Middle Ages. Green, for instance, stood for love, grey for sorrow, yellow for hostility. Blue, partly because of its connection with the Virgin Mary, became the colour of fidelity, and was allowed to be worn by everyone from the 13th century. In the Low Countries, however, this was the colour for adulterous wives. Red, on the other hand, was strongly connected to the nobility. It is notable that black and grey, colours of lower status people in the Early Middle Ages, in the 15th century were worn by the high aristocracy and royal personnages. The strong, heraldric-type colours of that age can be seen in representations of Burgundy's romantic-fantastic chivalric culture, flourishing in the fifteenth century, such as in the pages of the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.



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